Notes from Geoffrey Whittington, choir member, relating to the pieces we’re performing on 13 July 2024 :

Francis Poulenc –  Gloria

This great work, surely one of the best-loved twentieth century choral works, was written by the French composer Poulenc in 1959, four years before his death. It is for soprano solo, choir and orchestra and is in six highly contrasting movements.

As usual with Poulenc, there are gorgeous melodic ideas and lots of energy. The harmony contains both well-judged dissonance and lush, sensuous chord progressions; vigorous counterpoint in clipped, angular phrases alternates with lyrical melodic writing; dynamics frequently range from a hushed piano to an emphatic forte within the space of a bar or two. Equally there are a wide range of emotions, from serious, serene and lyrical (e.g. in the third and fifth movements), to funny capering about (e.g. in the second movement). The work’s various different moods probably reflect Poulenc’s own changes of view on religion during his lifetime. There’s an unresolved questioning seventh at the end of the third movement.  One of Poulenc’s many innovations in this piece is his use of contrasting tone colours between the Sopranos and Tenors against Altos and Basses. For this reason, Peter Gambie has divided his forces in this antiphonal manner which is particularly noticeable in the second movement.

Although the orchestral original naturally has a wider range of tone colour, arguably in some places the version we will use with piano accompaniment actually brings out more clearly some of the counterpoint, energy and dry humour.

There are some influences from Stravinsky and even Bach, but the work as a whole strikes one as so fresh, original and life-affirming.

Ian Schofield – Stream of Life

This is a work for unaccompanied choir, comprising five poems of Rabindranath Tagore which the Renaissance Choir commissioned and premiered in 2016 on its 40th anniversary.

Though virtually unknown in the west, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was prolific as a poet, playwright, philosopher, composer and writer on political and social issues. He was native of Calcutta, India, who wrote in Bengali and often translated his own work into English. He was the first non-European recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.

Tagore broke barriers in Bengali art, poetry and drama, ushering in a new era. He stood up for freedom; he stood up for India. Ghandi and Nehru were his friends: he also had meetings with Einstein. His poetry transcends generations and social barriers, weaving together the beautiful and powerful tapestry of Indian culture.

Our MD Peter Gambie writes: “When I was a music student at Dartington, the influence of Rabindranath Tagore was pervasive. His philosophy ran deeply amongst the students as many of us espoused his beliefs in the cyclical nature of birth, life and death, with love at the centre. For Tagore, death was a beginning of a new phase of existence. When the choir decided to commission a composition to celebrate its 40th anniversary, I suggested Tagore’s poetry and that Ian Schofield should be asked to set it to music.”

Ian and Peter are friends and have collaborated in the past, most notably when Peter made a successful bid to the BBC for a Community Arts Award. The result was a commission to Ian for a musical drama (“Freedom”) which is based on slavery.

Ian Schofield writes: “This commission was certainly a challenge! The texts are of great beauty, but their frequent changes of mood and irregularity of metre, both within and between verses provides a considerable challenge to any composer and I hope that my setting does them the justice that they deserve. I have used four of the five poems chosen by Peter and these make up the first four numbers of the sequence. For the fifth number, ‘Light, my light’, I have taken the opening lines from Tagore’s poem of the same name, and to that, I have created a narrative, utilising references to ‘light’ taken from other texts by him.”

Craig Hella Johnson – Gitanjali Chants

Johnson is an influential contemporary American choral conductor and composer. His choral group Conspirare has won many awards for its performances. In this piece written in 2011, Johnson has set two of Tagore’s Gitanjali poems. In the accompanying notes, Johnson writes that Tagore’s words evoke both mystical and familiar feelings within him, and they “ask” to be sung. Apart from at the ending, the words are either given to the upper or lower voices, with the other part holding a drone (a background note or chord). The bar lengths are very flexible to allow a very natural flow.

John Cage –  ‘FOUR2

The radical twentieth century American composer John Cage made a whole career of experimentation with new ways of writing and interpreting music. He experimented with construction based on rhythmic combinations, with specially prepared instruments e.g. pianos with objects inserted between the strings, groups of variable speed turntables and so on, and with totally unconventional notation systems.

In this piece, which is simply notated on a single page, the singers hold static notes with one letter of the word ‘Oregon’. The starts and finishes of each note are deliberately somewhat imprecise. Cage’s music is rarely performed today – this is the second time we have sung 42, repeating a its performance a year ago in this church.

William Byrd – Ne Irascaris

William Byrd’s Ne irascaris Domine [Do not be angry, Lord] is a double motet from 1589. It’s a forceful utterance inspired by the fate of the Catholic Church in England, where Byrd found ways to protest by using Biblical text expressing sorrow at the loss of freedom. The emphasis laid on the word ‘desolata’ after the sad echoings of ‘Ierusalem’, and the chordal enunciations of ‘Sion deserta facta est’ invite comparison with The Lamentations of Tallis.

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